Public Speaking Tips for Humour
More people end up in an industrial tribunal for an attempt at humour that went wrong than for any other reason. Humour is dynamite. Most jokes have a victim and they are often at their core racist, sexist and prejudiced. Therefore the only safe humour is when it is directed at oneself.
Used well humour can blast away barriers and awkwardness and forge a connection between the speaker and the audience, but if misjudged it can bring the roof down on everyone.
I remember a speaker announcing that he thought it is always good to start with a joke.
Only if you are funny I thought.
The purpose of humour – particularly at the start of a presentation is presumably to lighten the mood, reduce tension and make an immediate positive connection with audience.
If the joke is unfunny, off colour or badly delivered, then not only will it not have created the right effect, but it has probably achieved the exact opposite.
I have heard a few presentations that attempted to start off with a joke and the general feeling in the room was:
‘That was awkward!’
If part of the aim of the opening of a presentation is to lighten the mood, reduce tension and make an immediate positive connection with audience and even though one way of achieving that could be with humour, I would always recommend regarding humour as an item to be marked with ‘handle with care’.
Just because you think you are funny, or the joke is funny, does not always mean that the audience will thinks it’s funny. Our focus should always be on the message we want to put across and we should always regard humour only as a possible means to an end, rather than the end in itself.
Therefore – 7 tips on humour
Have a sense of humour
There is a difference between having a sense of humour and being funny. We might all aspire to be funny (or maybe not!) but we all have a sense of humour and even when we claim someone ‘has no sense of humour’ what we usually mean is that they did not find our type of humour funny.
I made this deep realisation at home. I have the ability to make the occasional witty observation and my wife has the ability to laugh. She can watch a half hour TV show on bloopers or holiday accidents on ‘You’ve been framed’ and spend the whole show dissolved in laughter, while I sit there unmoved.
Who has the greater sense of humour? Probably she has.
As a speaker, it is probably more important to show that you have a sense of humour than that you are funny, and that can often be achieved simply with a smile or a passing acknowledgement that something is funny, rather than trying too hard to be funny. Someone being funny may make us laugh, but knowing someone has a sense of humour warms our heart.
Be appropriate for the audience (1)
There are three types of being appropriate:
(1) appropriate to the tone of the audience,
(2) appropriate to the tone of the speech and
(3) appropriate for your position or character
Clearly it is important to tailor your humour to the taste of the audience.
And there may also be a moral or ethical question here.
There jokes that may resonate at an all-male sports club that would not be appropriate for a more diverse audience. However just because they raise a laugh does not necessarily mean they are appropriate for you to tell. That is for you to decide.
However assuming that you are OK with how a particular joke might reflect on your personality (after all there are comedians who make a career out of being off-colour and offensive), ask yourself how is the joke going to go down with your audience?
I remember a man boldly declaring to me that he always started his speeches with a joke.
He said it with such uncompromising conviction that I was already concerned.
‘Any particular joke?’ I asked
‘Yes’, he said
and went on to repeat a dubious observation he had once heard comparing the ideal length of a speech to women’s clothing.
‘How well does that go down with the women in the audience?’ I asked.
In the name of humour, rather than lighten the mood, reduce tension and make an immediate positive connection with audience, he had probably succeeded in alienating a large proportion of the people in the room before he had even started on his subject.
A speaker can be out of tune with a particular audience, and they can also become out of tune with the times!
There can also be generational issues to appropriateness. What granddad finds funny may no longer be acceptable to general society. On TV there are repeats of 1970s comedy programmes whose whole premise make many people cringe today. I can also remember starting to read the original Dr Doolittle stories to my children and realised fairly quickly there were some wholly inappropriate attitudes on display, unsuitable for children growing up in the twenty first century. One might excuse them by saying that they were attitudes ‘of their time’! So do be careful!. Is what you might find funny appropriate for your audience?
Be appropriate for the subject (2)
Is your humour sending a message that is incongruent with your topic?
Clearly, there should be no jokes at a funeral!
Remember the dynamite analogy from earlier.
A light generous, humorous observation might in fact be perfect to blast away barriers and awkwardness and forge a connection between the speaker and the audience at the beginning of the service while everyone sits self-consciously not knowing how to behave. The right humorous observation might release the tension.
We just need to fully consider all possible risks and dangers of what we are saying.
As long as the humour has been considered for its purpose, rather than just to be funny, we should be OK.
I remember attending a business seminar, where there was a strong emphasis on character, hard work and integrity as a route to success.
One speaker started his presentation with:
‘I would like to thank our hosts for their wonderful hospitality. They put us in a luxurious hotel. The towels were so thick I could barely close my suitcase!’ (Boom, boom)
It got a laugh, but I remember thinking, that for the sake of a quick joke (and I think everyone understood he was joking) he was willing to risk giving the impression that he was the sort of person that steals from hotels, in total contradiction to the message of his talk.
Be appropriate for you! (3)
If you are a religious leader, humorous examples of when you lied and cheated, may not be suitable for the honesty integrity you need to portray. (Unless – and there is always an ‘unless’ - you want to teach us how much you have changed from your bad self and therefore how much we can change. However, before risking any strong references to the old ‘flawed you’, you need to be very sure that we already believe in the ‘new you’.
Similarly if your business presentation is stressing professionalism, reliability and consistency, any humorous stories about how you left important documents on a train or about when you turned up late to meetings, may not help your case!
And as a warning example to everyone of how it can go wrong if the humour is not appropriate to the circumstances, may I draw your attention to the 2011 Liberal Democrat conference:
On the face of it, there was not too much wrong with Sarah Tether’s words, however,
(I) it was the wrong audience, (ii) the attempted humour was not relevant to the speech and (iii) it was sending the wrong message about the speaker.
(i) The audience was wrong
At a comedy club, the audience comes to laugh. Sometimes the comedian merely needs to come out and say ‘Hi’ and everyone is in hysterics. At a Liberal Democrat conference, the audience is not expecting a stand up routine. Therefore in these circumstances the humour, if not inappropriate in taste, was inappropriate in context.
(ii) It was not relevant
The ‘joke’ about strictly come dancing had no relevance to the purpose of the speech
(iii) It sent the wrong message about the speaker
Even though it was meant in a light-hearted way, the mere suggestion that the speaker, who was a politician hoping to represent the public on the important issues of the day, was more interested in getting back to watch TV than discuss the issues, undermined the image of her political credibility.
That may sound like a lot to ask, but in this context being original merely means making the humour true and relevant to you and your circumstances, rather than simply stealing someone else’s funny line for its own sake. Even for the dreaded best man speech, I believe the speaker will be more successful if they look for genuine stories that might have a humorous element but still have a purpose to them. Otherwise they are relying totally on being ‘funny’ – and most of us are not that funny.
I have heard many speakers repeating a line from another speaker or even comedian, simply because they thought it sounded funny, rather than because the line had some genuine relevance or significance.
This ties up with most of the previous observations. If the ‘joke’ is not relevant to the content of the speech, at best it is leading the audience away from the true theme and message of the speech and therefore might cause some confusion in their understanding, at worst – it is just not that funny anyway!
If you tell a funny story with a purpose that is aligned to the theme of the speech and no one laughs, you can simply move on by telling them ‘the point of that story’. If you tell a funny story without a purpose and no one laughs, you have just died a horrible comedians’ death. If there is a purpose to your stories there is less pressure on you to be funny, less pressure on the audience to laugh, which probably means you will tell the story better and the audience will be more inclined to smile or laugh because they did not feel compelled to.
Laugh at yourself
This last point should take most of the pressure away.
The safest place to direct your humour is at yourself:
not your wife, your husband or people from somewhere else.
Someone who can laugh at themselves is seen as more humble and less arrogant and if you have a tendency to come across a little ‘preachy’, a little bit of self-mockery can soften your edges.
It has the added benefit of allowing the audience to look at their own failings, because you are willing to acknowledge yours.